Rink Roundtable: At the Halfway Mark

Rob Carr

The Rink crew weighs in on the Caps at the halfway point of the season, and look ahead to the last 24 games.

Sunday’s loss to the Rangers was Game #24 on the Caps schedule - aka the official halfway point of this lockout-shortened 2013 season. With 24 games to go, let’s take stock of where we are...

Q1. What do you see as being the bright spots - individual performances, good games, signs of growth, etc. - so far?

JP: I think the biggest positive I’m taking away from the first half is a sense that Adam Oates is the right man for the job (or, if he isn’t, it clearly ain’t about the coach). His power-play has looked terrific (32% over the last 16 games), the penalty kill has been pretty good (81% over the last 13 games after a dismal start), and they’re outscoring opponents by an average of 2.4-to-1.5 per game at even-strength over the last 13. Granted, they’ve been handily out-shot and out-possessed over these spans, and it’s safe to say that puck luck has been on their side. But when you look at this roster - at players who don’t necessarily fit what it is that Oates ultimately wants his team to be doing - the play over the last 13 games or so has been surprisingly good (with some obvious stinkers along the way), even if the win total hasn’t reflected that to the degree you’d think it might. When they’re "on," there’s reason to believe that things are headed in the right direction.

But when you look at this roster - at players who don’t necessarily fit what it is that Oates ultimately wants his team to be doing - the play over the last 13 games or so has been surprisingly good...

As to individual superlatives, I’d point to Mike Ribeiro’s production, Karl Alzner’s studliness, Joel Ward’s, Mathieu Perreault’s, Eric Fehr’s and Wojtek Wolski’s overall play, and Braden Holtby’s turn-around, and point to the comeback win against Boston as the single-game high point, both because of who they beat and how they did it.

Kevin: The most easily identifiable bright spot on a team that doesn’t have them in the troves they used to, is the powerplay. Clicking at a 25.6% rate is a stark contrast to what we’ve been used to ever since something got caught in the wheel of Bruce Boudreau’s powerplay and broke all the spokes. If the Caps weren’t in the bottom seven in the league in powerplay opportunities, I’d wager they wouldn’t have to crane their necks so far back just to get a glimpse of the teams in playoff position.

In terms of individual performances, I’ll look to the pipes. Braden Holtby’s awful start to the season had us all looking skyward, perhaps yelling "WHY, WHY, WHY HAVE YOU TAKEN HIM FROM US?! WHO IS THIS LEAKY IMPOSTER YOU’VE PUT IN HIS PLACE?" No, just me? After trading starts with Neuvirth for a bit, Holtby earned his job, and thrived during an 11 game start streak, putting up numbers extremely comparable to those from his excellent playoffs last spring.

Tomas Kundratek and Steven Oleksy performing passingly in unexpectedly high minutes is nothing to scoff at either.

Geoff: John Erskine has been a bright spot for me since the start of the 2013 season. In seventeen games this season the rear guard has out performed last year’s stats for the Capitals in both goals and points, despite playing in eleven fewer games through Sunday night. Signed to a $3.925M/2 year extension Erskine has caught fans and General Manager George McPhee’s attention, what else could the eleven year veteran provide this team from a depth defensive position? Erskine is skating to a +6 ranking, behind only forwards Joel Ward (+9) and Eric Fehr (+8), a good number defending on a team that has allowed three more goals than it has scored this season.

The Capitals’ come from behind victory over the Boston Bruins was the season highlight so far, but may only have been a tease should the team continue their slide through the season’s midpoint. Washington looked down and out after the first twenty minutes but responded after the first intermission with an inspired effort, scoring four unanswered goals for the overtime win. The comeback victory generated momentum that was carried into Washington’s win over Florida that week but has been since grounded after the Capitals weekend against New York’s teams. The Bruins were done in by a Capitals team playing forty one minutes of great hockey, a confirmation of the high caliber team that still resides in the Nation’s Capital.

Kareem: In addition to the aforementioned bright spots of finding a potential coaching gem in Adam Oates, the emergence out-of-nowhere of Kundratek and the revived power play, I’d have to add the re-appearance of Eric Fehr to the list as well. He’s been giving the team high quality minutes and producing (6G-6A-12P with a +8 in 21 GP), especially over the last dozen games. He brings a power forward dimension that the Caps need while Brooks Laich is on the shelf. Hopefully, Fehr can sustain this pace, avoid the chronic injury problems that have plagued his career and entrench himself as a top 6 winger for years to come. Maybe that’s wishful thinking, but there have been late bloomers in the power forward role (see Knuble, Mike).

Rob: I don’t have anything new to add to what’s been said, but I’ll pick my bright spots as a) Oates, b) Kundratek, c) Fehr. And that two third of the bright spots are role players says just about all you need to know about the Caps this season.

Becca: I’d agree with the individuals called out by pretty much everyone else, particularly in regards to guys like Kundratek and Oleksy who came in with the lowest expectations and have so far exceeded them - and have done so in a really tough spot, trying to replace (or at least help fill the void left by) Mike Green. But really the best part of this season so far for me has been the fact that when this team executes the system well, they’re fun to watch again. Obviously at the end of the day we’d take "boring" wins over exciting losses, but as someone who spends time and money on this team, it’s nice to occasionally just enjoy watching a game, win or lose. I like what Oates has done with this team, and I think with the right personnel it’ll be an even more entertaining team to watch in the coming years.

And I'll agree with JP and Geoff on the win over Boston, too. Instant favorite for so many reasons.

Q2: On the flip side, what have been the biggest disappointments?

JP: It’s hard not to point at the real foundation of this team, at least as it had been laid out over the past couple of years. Alex Ovechkin’s production and overall play haven’t really been rejuvenated by the coaching change to the degree we might have hoped. Mike Green’s health hasn’t been what we might have expected post-surgery and post-contract-extension. Nick Backstrom has had a quietly solid year, but we don’t want "quietly solid" from Nick Backstrom, we want jaw-dropping two-way play (hard to expect, perhaps, given his current linemates). And Brooks Laich hasn’t skated a shift yet. So the biggest disappointment, to me, is that it’s hard to gauge exactly where this team is right now, because so much of the core of it is missing (either literally or somewhat figuratively). I don’t think the roster is as stacked with talent as it has been in past years, but any team needs its best players healthy and playing as its best players to have a chance.

KK: It’s easy to say Alexander Ovechkin here, and with good reason. His overall campaign has been disappointing, to say the least. But I have more patience than most with the captain, particularly in a season with as many inherent wrenches within as this lockout shortened one (new system, new coach, new center, new position), so I’ll look elsewhere. The biggest disappointments are the injuries. Brooks Laich sustaining an injury in Switzerland that keeps him out of the lineup for more than half the season is devastating. Factor in Orlov’s concussion on the blue line, Mike Green’s groin possessing the elasticity of a rusty paperclip, John Erskine’s recent absence, and you realize the landscape of this team isn’t exactly what it might have looked like on paper a few months ago.

Also, it’s tough to say "Capitals" and "disappointment" without mentioning Marcus Johansson and Jason Chimera in the same breath. Jason Chimera was a 20 goal scorer last year. This season is half over, and he hasn’t put it over the line once. As for Marcus, it’s always disappointing when a young player with potential, who when drafted was a big part of the team’s future, fails to fill the shoes laid out for him. And let’s face it, those shoes weren’t too big.

B: Chimera is probably one of the biggest disappointments for me - it’s not that I necessarily expected him to replicate his performance from last year, because there was definitely some overachievement going on, but I certainly expected him to have at least a goal through twenty-four games. Backstrom has definitely been a disappointment, as well, despite putting up a ton of assists and having some good underlying numbers; he just doesn’t look like himself. As JP so succinctly put it, he looks quietly solid but we’ve come to expect so much more.

As far as the team as a whole goes...it’s probably too easy to just say "the whole team and every loss" even though that’s my first thought. I’d put the games that could have been a point in the standings as a disappointment (and how much of one depends on where the team ends up at the end of the year). There’s no reason for them not to have gotten at least a point from a handful of those early games, and that’s made a huge difference in just how much of a hill they have to climb now.

G: Joey Crabb, a former seventh round draft pick, has been idling in Washington, the winger unable to get his game going alongside Alexander Ovechkin or otherwise. In 144 previous NHL contests the forward has put away eighteen goals and thirty two assists, the Alaskan native’s numbers dropping off since arriving in Washington, DC. In twenty three games with the Capitals Crabb has a single goal and point, the only tally in a four to one loss to the Canadiens back in January. With a $950K cap hit Crabb is a valuable signing if he can impose his will on opposing defenses below the goal line and force pucks the Capitals’ way, something fans haven’t seen this season. Head Coach Adam Oates seems to agree, skating Crabb less than ten minutes in five of his team’s last six contests (including a season low 4:59 against the Bruins 3/5/13).

Kareem: The Caps .904 SV% has been a disappointment. Anything closer to average and the Caps would be in the thick of the playoff race. But the bigger disappointment to me has been the regression of the defense. When he plays, Mike Green is just another defenseman. John Carlson was supposed to be the next superstar, but he hasn’t yet developed into the bad-ass-stud-two-way defenseman the team was hoping for. Jeff Schultz has fallen so far so fast that he doesn’t even get a sweater every night. Karl Alzner has (thankfully) met expectations, but after him what’s left? Kundratek and Erskine have carved out solid roles and Tom Poti has made an admirable comeback, but on serious contenders, none of those guys is anything more than a sixth defenseman. Banking on Dmitry Orlov, a prospect who was scratched for the entire playoffs last season, to return from injury and save the blue line is wishful thinking. On a good team Orlov wouldn’t get top 4 minutes this early in his career. The defense needs a talent upgrade.

As important as [Ovechkin] is to the team, he needs to be better; he needs to find a way to be the best player he can be.

R: I’m with Kareem here. The D has been very disappointing. Normally I don’t really hold injuries against players, but it’s clear that Green can’t/won’t stay healthy. I thought the groin surgery would fix him, but he’s right back where he was. Carlson looks like last year’s regular season Carlson, not the playoff variety. Young defensemen have their ups and downs, but it’s at the point where you have to wonder whether he’s ever going to take that step to become the dominant defenseman that we thought he’d be. And I have to add Ovechkin to the list. His game has (still) not changed the way it needs to to get the most out of the Captain. Aside from the hat trick against the Devils, he still doesn’t seem to have learned any lessons about changing his play, and some of the comments he’s made about wanting the puck more only reinforce that observation. As important as he is to the team, he needs to be better; he needs to find a way to be the best player he can be.

Q3: Is this team capable of making the playoffs? Are they one or two pieces away from that point (i.e. could the right addition at the deadline get them to where they need to be)? Or is this season a complete write-off?

KK: They might be, but their playoff chances are no longer solely in their hands. The Hurricanes are beginning to find their footing and pull away from the pack (8 points ahead of the Caps to date, in equal games played). The Rangers, who presently hold that coveted final playoff spot, are 7 points the Caps’ superior. That’s a lot of ground to make up in only 24 games, and the Capitals need to play extremely well from here on out, while also looking for a cataclysmic collapse in the ranks currently above them. It’s never fun when you can’t pave your own way, but opening the season at 2-8-1 with a purely intra-conference schedule has a way of taking such privileges away...

JP: Capable? Sure. The Southeast Division is atrocious. But I think it’s unlikely at this point because it would require sustaining a level of play that they just haven’t been able to produce yet outside of small stretches and/or against mediocre-to-bad Southeast Division teams. As we noted in yesterday’s Noon Number, they’ve struggled mightily against the decent teams in the Conference, and they’re more than a piece or two away (though healthy Laich, Green and Dmitry Orlov would make a difference). Barring a dramatic change in the team’s performance, the playoffs are a longshot... but I wouldn’t say the season is a write-off - hopefully they’ve righted the ship and can work on things that will help them in the long-run.

G: The shortened season and injury riddled lineup had the Capitals behind their peers from the get go in 2013. Having a new Head Coach behind their bench didn’t help Washington close that gap since getting started on January 19th. Long absences from forward Brooks Laich and defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Mike Green have kept the Capitals from competing with the Eastern Conference’s finest. With a couple Southeast Division teams fighting their own injury woes the division crown is hardly sewn up, but I don’t see the current Capitals lineup putting up the standings points needed to close their eight point division deficit.

B: A week ago I was firmly in the camp that this team has a shot. And while I haven’t thrown in the towel just yet - I’ll wait for the mathematical elimination before I do that - even I can admit that it’s not looking good. Blown chances have continued to bite this team in the rear, including the back-to-back losses over the weekend, and between those blown chances and the teams in front of them extending their lead (or at least holding it) at both the 8-spot and the top of the division, I’m inclined to say that the window is starting to close.

...but let’s see how their next two games go. A pair of wins against the Canes could go a long way toward renewing my optimism.

R: Of course they are capable, but it’s been a one-step-forward-two-steps-back type of season all year. Nothing has really indicated that this team is ready to go on a run and put together 17 points in 20 games, so I’m not going to bank on it or expect it. I’m concerned that with the compacted standings in the shortened season the team will never really be completely out of the picture, and that will give management hope. They’ll push and push, maybe add a couple pieces around the edges, and settle in for 9th or 10th in the east.

Q4: Assign a letter grade for Adam Oates’ performance so far.

JP: B-. I like what Oates has done, and neither the lack of quality depth on the roster nor some of the shoddy play it’s produced are his doing, but until he can get more out of the $9-million man, he’s going to be in the B range for me. And while I’d consider giving him a straight B here, I’ll ding him with that minus for the Ottawa, Toronto and Jersey games in which they blew third period leads and lost in regulation - the team has got to figure out a way to get at least a point out of games like that, and that’s partially on the coach. Three more points (or more) would make a difference right now; loser points are still points.

KK: I’ll give him a B, and I could have been bribed to give him better by a dry glass of red. Oates’s introduction to head coaching went something like this. "Oh, hi team, I’m Adam, and this is how I want you to play hockey, which is nothing like my old buddy Dale had you playing. Oh, and also, first game’s in a week, so wipe those Dorito crumbs off your shirt, Carlson."

Obviously team performance has been lacking, but his personnel isn’t exactly ideal at the moment. I also believe the Ovechkin-to-RW move will pay long-term dividends, even if the growing pains have been cringe-worthy of late. Adam Oates seems to be a man of steadfast purpose, and he seems to know exactly what it’s going to take to achieve his vision. Perhaps he doesn’t have the tools to chisel out his desired product, but he’s taken what’s been given to him and set to work, and that block of stone is at the very least beginning to take shape.

G: No one will argue that Adam Oates walked into an optimal starting gig as an NHL Head Coach. Taking the Capitals’ reins in a lockout-shortened season where communication between NHL employees and players was nonexistent, Oates took his blue print up north to Hershey, PA to familiarize himself with leading a ship, taking Washington on its way when NHL play resumed. A shorter than normal training camp and feeling out process created the 2-8-1 hole that Kevin mentioned earlier, one too great to overcome in limited contests.

Oates has handled his team’s up and downs admirably, keeping himself level among the season’s various highs and lows.

Awful starts aside, Oates has handled his team’s up and downs admirably, keeping himself level amongst the season’s various highs and lows. I'll give the Coach a B, having righted the team from its first fifteen games. I believe that Oates’ decision to switch Ovechkin to the right wing will have a lasting impact (see Ilya Kovalchuk) on the winger’s game and will help the sniper take some different looks against familiar opponents.

K: B. And if he can find a way to win the division I’ll give him an A, which at this point is a stretch goal. That said, I like Oates’s intellectual approach to the game, I appreciate his willingness to hold players accountable, and I’m a fan of the system, as it can work in the playoffs. This guy seems like a keeper. The issues on this team are not his fault, and he shouldn’t be dinged for it this year. He needs a full season to fix the problems that plague this team. (But he better fix it!)

B: I’m going to screw up the curve a bit and go B+. Some of his personnel moves have been puzzling... but really, name one coach who doesn’t make some seemingly strange personnel choices. Overall I think he’s done a good job of keeping this team on an even keel, and he’s got a very intellectual approach to the game - but not to the point of outsmarting anyone, if he describes things to the team the way he does through the media. The system is more suited to the personnel than what they were doing last year (although a few tweaks in that department might give us a better idea of how well it can be implemented) and games are more fun to watch. And despite the fact that Ovechkin is struggling I do think we’ve seen more flashes of what he used to be/can be under Oates than we have in the last few years, and there seems to be a good level of trust between the two (and Oates isn’t afraid to call out his captain, either). I think with a full training camp after this shortened season he’ll really be able to drive home what he wants out of his team and next year should (hopefully) be a much improved Caps squad.

R: I guess that depends on the criteria. On the ice, in terms of systems, etc., I could give him a B+. J.P. has already talked about the PP and PK, and while ES has been a bit of a mess the team has been playing more crisply in that facet lately (i.e. showing improvement). He looks like he knows what he’s doing, and it doesn’t look like he was a passenger-coach on the Devils team from last year. But, unfair as it may be, on the ice isn’t everything with this team. At some point a coach needs to be able to come in and change the culture of this team, specifically the core (and more specifically, one part of the core). No coach has been able to do it so far, so maybe it’s not fair to expect Oates to do it, but when I consider the mental changes that this team needs to make before they can compete for a Cup, I just haven’t seen those steps taken. Overall I think he’s got a B right now, but it’s a promising B in that I think he’s got the chops to be a solid NHL coach.

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